Books: Infinite riches from the lost subcontinent

Pankaj Mishra argues that the nuclear bomb-wielding India of today has forgotten the subtle glories of ancient Hindu and Buddhist thought; Ka by Roberto Calasso, translated by Tim Parks Cape, pounds 16.99, 464pp
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EARLY IN Ka, Roberto Calasso's elegant compendium of classical Indian myths and legends, there occurs one of those sentences that makes you wonder about the book's fate in England: "We are devotees of the distinct and the articulate, but the infinite festers in our bones."

It probably does. But the infinite, with which Indian religion and philosophy is obsessed, has not had a good press in commonsense-loving England. This is why the discovery of India's classical past in the 19th century had almost no effect on English literature and philosophy, whereas it was seized upon with delight by the German Romantics. Their enthusiasm was inherited by Goethe, Schopenhauer and even Thomas Mann, who based a charming short story, "The Transposed Heads", on an idea drawn from the Upanishads.

Not that German and French ideas of India were always on target. Most of Schopenhauer's notions of India look half-baked in retrospect; and Nietzsche, who had an Indologist as a personal friend, still managed to make Indian philosophy sound quite like his own. Accuracy wasn't really the point. Classical India was a useful stick to flay one's own civilisation; it showed up the mediocrity and soullessness of the times.

A similar sort of aristocratic contempt for the modern age is evident in Ka, despite Calasso's declared intention to present "the Indianness of the mind of India, but in an Indian way". You may have reservations about this attitude. The first few pages, for instance, are not easy going - not even for the very competent translator, Tim Parks, who recently wrote at length in the LRB about his first, bewildering encounter with Sanskrit abstractions.

Then the stories, so packed with meaning, proliferate too fast; and they often assume knowledge of other stories. Even a much longer book would be hard pressed to accommodate such a digressive form as classical Indian literature. Calasso stays out of the narrative frame, preferring to place the stories - taken from the Vedas, the Puranas, the Brahmanas, the Mahabharata, and Buddhist texts - in a kind of history of Indian thought.

His two preoccupations are easy to identify. In The Ruins of Kasch, he discussed the value of sacrifice in pre-modern societies. In Ka, there is a chapter on Asvamedha, the horse sacrifice conducted by ambitious kings, the last sinister stages of which involve copulation between the dead horse and the first wife of the king.

Calasso is also concerned with the nature of consciousness, with "the recognition that the existence of the universe is a secondary and derivative fact with respect to the existence of the mind". This sounds unfairly abstract because his achievement lies in making these stories yield a larger sense of the way things are; he creates through them a cosmic drama in which we glimpse a bigger meaning behind everyday life.

Consider this moment, close to the beginning of the world, when Parvati - consort of Shiva, the dark god of paradox - magnificently curses Shiva's compatriots, the clean-cut gods who live up in the sky and present themselves as the paragons of goodness. "You are old," she says, "and the world is impatient to be rid of you. Up there, where you live, there will be nothing but emptiness, and that emptiness will enchant men even more than you have enchanted them. Only Shiva shall be motionless, pervasive, intact, as he ever has been." Certainly, the dark god of paradox has had a longer run in human history, where goodness remains for most men an empty, if enchanting, promise. Calasso's retelling of major stories from the Mahabharata wonderfully evokes the great melancholy that lies at the heart of this epic, and highlights its overarching theme: the corrosions of Time, Kala.

In common with most Hindus, Calasso considers the Buddha an incarnation of the Hindu godhead, Vishnu. This would annoy those Indian Buddhists who have worked hard to extricate the Buddha from the all-devouring Hindu pantheon. His account of the Buddha, although sympathetic, is coloured by his preference for the pre-Buddhist, Aryan past.

He attributes the beginnings of intellectual modernity to the Buddha's habit of "seeing things as so many aggregates and dismantling them"; and of "seeing the world as a landscape of interlocking cogs". An odd perception - but its truth was recognised by the great French structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss, whose Tristes Tropiques concludes with a moving tribute to the Buddha.

There is something enthralling about such coherent sensibilities as Calasso and Levi-Strauss holding a conversation with the older cultures of India. In both cases, you can witness a curiosity and freshness that is rare in our multiculturalist times, where on one side soundbite journalism and unreadable academese masquerade as knowledge; and on the other, a simple-minded assertion of ethnic identity steadily dispenses with the need to know, in any depth, one's own or other people's cultures.

A greater irony is that no contemporary Indian writer would be able to match such erudition and originality as Calasso displays in Ka. This raises the awkward question: how much of the "Indianness of the mind of the India" exists now? The civilisation that has come to India in the past 200 years is a hybrid offshoot of the Enlightenment in Western Europe. Since Independence, Indian talents have mostly gone into adapting - quite successfully - to powerful new ideas in the arts and sciences coming out of Europe and America. Strange as it may seem, Indian writing in English and nuclear bombs are aspects of the same ambiguous achievement.

As for Indian philosophy, it has petered out in dry academic exegeses. To speak of the continuity of an essentially "Indian" India is to speak primarily of practices and rituals that have survived among the poor and the pre-literate. India's more glorious past remains another country, even to those middle-class Hindu nationalists who routinely invoke it to underline the damage wrought by Islam and colonialism. It is to this sad neglect that Calasso's book offers a generous antidote.

Pankaj Mishra is a writer based in New Delhi and Simla